Peter Albrechtsen Special: The Sound of Music [Part 1]
[Written by Peter Albrechtsen]
Music is sound and sound is music.
That’s how it is for me. I’m a big fan of all kinds of music and music really influences all aspects of my work. I wanted to share with you some different songs and talk about how they’ve inspired my work. It’s by no means a list with all the artists I love – there’s no Kraftwerk, no Fela Kuti, no Miles Davis, no Slayer, no Philip Glass, no Nina Simone, no Boards of Canada, and, shame on me, no Radiohead. But nevertheless, here are 10 tracks (well, the first five) that have meant a lot for my work with sound:
Elvis Costello: I Want You
I can actually say that this song has been life-changing to me. When I went to the European Film College back in 1995, the film sound teacher played this song as his way of introducing himself and his course. At that point I didn’t know much about film sound but I was hooked immediately and I signed up for his lessons. Since then, there’s been no going back.
There was something about this track that totally mesmerized me. I’ve often been wondering why I had such a big emotional reaction to this song. I’ve got lots of respect for Costello’s skills as a songwriter and how he constantly evolves but I’m not a big fan in any way. This song stands out and I can keep listening to it – it draws me in every time.
Musically, it’s not advanced in any way. Rather, it’s the opposite: The sound is pretty hissy, the guitar playing is rough around the edges and the organ is severely missing some low-end. But it doesn’t matter. Actually, it sets for the perfect tone for the very rough emotions that Costello is singing about. And then, there’s the voice. You can just hear that every word is important to him. “I want you,” he’s singing over and over again and you just know that he means it. He wants his love. Now.
Working as a sound designer for film, I’ve learned from this how much performance means. Performance means way more than perfection. Actually, a great performance is often not technically perfect in any way but moving because of its faults, mistakes and errors. If an actor’s voice sounds a bit jagged it can add a lot of emotion to a scene. Don’t strive for perfection. Strive for emotion.
The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows
In the interview earlier this month I mentioned how classical music was here, there and everywhere in my childhood home but actually there was one more thing dominating the airwaves: The Beatles. My dad loved The Beatles right from the start and got most of the old singles and all the albums, of course. But he wasn’t just in it for all the wonderful melodies but just as much for all the crazy sound experiments that the band and producer George Martin did. “I Am the Walrus”, “A Day in the Life”, “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and this one, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, those are some of the tracks that got most airplay.
It’s simply astounding music. For me as a sound designer, I’ve learned from this how much you can get away with soundwise if your melody/story/script is strong enough. But I’ve also learned how much fun it is to play around with sounds – the most banal sounds can be amazing and provide a new emotional perspective and tell new stories if you pitch them down, turn them backwards, apply weird reverbs to them.
The album “Revolver” (from 1966, amazingly enough) stands for me as the Beatles’ masterpiece among masterpieces. It’s a tour de force and the first time Beatles really used the studio as an instrument in itself – and “Tomorrow Never Knows” is the prime example. Just check out the crazy solo that starts about a minute in, it sounds like nothing else, like nothing is playing exactly the way it should but amazingly musical anyway. It’s pop and avant-garde as one. Listening to this song makes me realize that the world of sound is one big playground.
Talk Talk: The Rainbow
This is from one of my favorite albums of all time, Talk Talk’s “Spirit of Eden”. Actually, for me, this is the most amazing opening of an album ever – hypnotic, beautiful. In the beginning, there are only tones. Soft, soft tones, a guitar drenched in reverb and this weird sound rising up during the first minute and peaking about two minutes in – I’ve got no idea what that sound is, I don’t wanna know, actually, but it sounds a bit wet, a bit mechanical and a bit like an animal coming to life. It’s the sound of a gentle beast awakening inside a cathedral of sound. Yeah, that’s me trying to poetic but you need to be a bit poetic when describing this.
Mark Hollis is the voice of Talk Talk and what a voice that is! So fragile and so strong at the same time. It takes almost 3 and a half minutes before his vocal appears which just goes to show how Talk Talk has put all rules of normal pop music behind them even though they started out as a pop band. This track is actually just the first part of a 22 minute opening suite on the album – Talk Talk inhabits their own time zone in that sense.
This track is the reason that pretty much every mix I’ve done starts out very, very gently with just a soft tone, usually just from the center channel and then moving out into left and right and then into the surrounds. I think when you start out soft the audience leans in. Quiet sounds make you sharpen your ears. You lean forward in your seat. And then you can take the audience away. Or at least try to.
Nine Inch Nails: Hurt
First thing: Please give Trent Reznor an Academy Award. He deserves it. His and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack for “The Social Network” is outstanding.
Trent Reznor and his one-man-band Nine Inch Nails is probably the biggest influence for my sound design, and the album “The Downward Spiral” is a magnum opus for my sense of sound. Reznor’s way with sounds is awe-inspiring. When I do sound effects and ambiences a key word is always ‘texture’. When I talk to the foley artist about what I want I always say ‘texture’. When I mix something I want ‘texture’. And it’s all because of how Reznor’s working – he’s a master of texture, so to say – lots of layering going on and every sound is there for a specific reason. And this song, “Hurt”, is the perfect proof.
“Hurt” is probably Reznor’s most famous track, especially because country icon Johnny Cash made an incredibly moving cover version and music video of it. I’ve picked it not just because it’s a brilliant composition but also because it shows how Reznor plays around with texture even when the instrumentation is extremely simple. Check out the acoustic guitar in the verses that has this weird tone to it, like it’s in key but manipulated in such a way that it’s a bit off-key as well and doing weird things with the stereo perspective – headphones needed. And then there’s the whole distorted ambient background that starts out subtly but sounds like it’s exploding in the end. “Everyone I know goes away in the end” – but Nine Inch Nails’ music will endure.
Wu-Tang Clan: Careful (Click, Click)
I love the craziness of the Wu-Tang Clan. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop during the years and these eccentric newyorkers are among my favorites. This track is by no means their most famous, but I’ve picked it because it showcases their weird way with sound in wonderful ways.
First off, the way the song begins: Like it cuts into another beat before the actual song starts off. And then, when the track actually begins it’s filled with lots of noisy samples that seem like they haven’t been probably edited and cuts in and out of the soundscape – the producer RZA loves old samurai movies and it seems like he cuts in and out of samurai sound effects almost at random. And even though The Wu-Tang guys are amazing rappers, a lot of the back up-vocals are pretty out there. Nevertheless, it all comes together and I adore this track. It’s crazy and fascinating and groovy in its own very, very awkward way.
And what to learn from this? I think an important lesson is to remember that sounds don’t need to be clean-cut and beautiful to make an impression. Often, the opposite is true. All the unexplainable noises that come and go in this track are something that a lot of sound people – including me – would cut out of a soundtrack. We don’t want noisy stuff cutting in and out, we want clarity, we want intelligibility and we want to make sure that the audience isn’t thrown off the story.
But at the same time, using unusual sounds in unusual ways makes the soundtrack more interesting. When I’m building ambiences as a sound designer or effects editor I try to incorporate this idea into my thinking. This means that besides all the sounds that’s supposed to be there – the sounds that tell you where you are, describes the place, time of day and situation – I usually pick a sound or two that’s a bit out of place but adds some extra texture to the track – it can be an almost musical tone or reverb-y element or maybe just a background track that’s a bit farfetched, like some weird noises going on way out in the background or maybe even the foreground. I’ll put this element on separate tracks, and in the mix, it can be easily muted. But my own experience mixing is that this element often comes in handy in situations where you want to give a scene a special touch or want to underline a certain moment in a scene.
To be continued…